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General Alignment in D&D

Alignment is, on some level, the beating heart of Dungeons & Dragons. On the other hand, it’s sort of a stupid rule. It’s like the hit point rules in that it makes for a good game experience, especially if you don’t think about it too hard. Just as Magic: the Gathering has the five colors that transcend any world or story, so alignment is a universal cosmic truth from one D&D world to the next. The deities themselves obey the pattern of alignment.

On the story side, the alignment rules contain the rudiments of roleplaying, as in portraying your character according to their personality. On the game side, it conforms to D&D’s wargaming roots, representing army lists showing who is on whose side against whom.

The 3x3 alignment grid is one part of AD&D’s legacy that we enthusiastically ported into 3E and that lives on proudly in 5E and in countless memes. Despite the centrality of alignment in D&D, other RPGs rarely copy D&D’s alignment rules, certainly not the way they have copied D&D’s rules for abilities, attack rolls, or hit points.

alignment.png

Alignment started as army lists in the Chainmail miniatures rules, before Dungeons & Dragons released. In those days, if you wanted to set up historical Napoleonic battles, you could look up armies in the history books to see what forces might be in play. But what about fantasy armies? Influenced by the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Gary Gygax’s rules for medieval miniatures wargaming included a fantasy supplement. Here, to help you build opposing armies, was the list of Lawful units (good), the Chaotic units (evil), and the neutral units. Today, alignment is a roleplaying prompt for getting into character, but it started out as us-versus-them—who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Original D&D used the Law/Chaos binary from Chainmail, and the Greyhawk supplement had rudimentary notes about playing chaotic characters. The “referee” was urged to develop an ad hoc rule against chaotic characters cooperating indefinitely. This consideration shows how alignment started as a practical system for lining up who was on whose side but then started shifting toward being a concrete way to think about acting “in character.”

Another thing that Greyhawk said was that evil creatures (those of chaotic alignment) were as likely to turn on each other as attack a lawful party. What does a 12-year old do with that information? One DM applies the rule literally in the first encounter of his new campaign. When we fought our first group of orcs in the forest outside of town, The DM rolled randomly for each one to see whether it would attack us or its fellow orcs. That rule got applied for that first battle and none others because it was obviously stupid. In the DM’s defense, alignment was a new idea at the time.

Law versus Chaos maps pretty nicely with the familiar Good versus Evil dichotomy, albeit with perhaps a more fantastic or apocalyptic tone. The Holmes Basic Set I started on, however, had a 2x2 alignment system with a fifth alignment, neutral, in the center. For my 12-year old mind, “lawful good” and “chaotic evil” made sense, and maybe “chaotic good,” but “lawful evil”? What did that even mean? I looked up “lawful,” but that didn’t help.

Holmes Original Alignment Diagram.png

Our first characters were neutral because we were confused and “neutral” was the null choice. Soon, I convinced my group that we should all be lawful evil. That way we could kill everything we encountered and get the most experience points (evil) but we wouldn’t be compelled to sometimes attack each other (as chaotic evil characters would).

In general, chaotic good has been the most popular alignment since probably as soon as it was invented. The CG hero has a good heart and a free spirit. Following rules is in some sense bowing to an authority, even if it is a moral or internalized authority, and being “chaotic” means being unbowed and unyoked.

Chaotic neutral has also been popular. Players have sometimes used this alignment as an excuse to take actions that messed with the party’s plans and, not coincidentally, brought attention to the player. The character was in the party because the player was at the table, but real adventurers would never go into danger with a known wildcard along with them. This style of CG play was a face-to-face version of griefing, and it was common enough that Ryan Dancey suggested we ban it from 3E.

The target we had for 3E was to make a game that doubled-down on its own roots, so we embraced AD&D’s 3x3 alignment grid. Where the Holmes Basic Set listed a handful of monsters on its diagram, 3E had something more like Chainmail’s army lists, listing races, classes, and monsters on a 3x3 table.

When I was working on 3E, I was consciously working on a game for an audience that was not me. Our job was to appeal to the game’s future audience. With the alignment descriptions, however, I indulged in my personal taste for irony. The text explains why lawful good is “the best alignment you can be.” In fact, each good or neutral alignment is described as “the best,” with clear reasons given for each one. Likewise, each evil alignment is “the most dangerous,” again with a different reason for each one. This treatment was sort of a nod to the interminable debates over alignment, but the practical purpose was to make each good and neutral alignment appealing in some way.

If you ever wanted evidence that 4E wasn’t made with the demands of the fans first and foremost, recall that the game took “chaotic good” out of the rules. CG is the most popular alignment, describing a character who’s virtuous and free. The alignments in 4E were lawful good, good, neutral, evil, and chaotic evil. One on level, it made sense to eliminate odd-ball alignments that don’t make sense to newcomers, such as the “lawful evil” combination that flummoxed me when I was 12. The simpler system in 4E mapped fairly well to the Holmes Basic 2x2 grid, with two good alignments and two evil ones. In theory, it might be the best alignment system in any edition of D&D. On another level, however, the players didn’t want this change, and the Internet memes certainly didn’t want it. If it was perhaps better in theory, it was unpopular in practice.

In 5E, the alignments get a smooth, clear, spare treatment. The designers’ ability to pare down the description to the essentials demonstrates a real command of the material. This treatment of alignment is so good that I wish I’d written it.

My own games never have alignment, per se, even if the game world includes real good and evil. In Ars Magica, membership in a house is what shapes a wizard’s behavior or social position. In Over the Edge and Everway, a character’s “guiding star” is something related to the character and invented by the player, not a universal moral system. In Omega World, the only morality is survival. 13th Age, on the other hand, uses the standard system, albeit lightly. The game is a love letter to D&D, and players have come to love the alignment system, so Rob Heinsoo and I kept it. Still, a 13th Age character’s main “alignment” is in relation to the icons, which are not an abstraction but rather specific, campaign-defining NPCs.

 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

Voadam

Adventurer
Most of the lore I'm familiar with says nothing about this. I have heard it before, but never as anything more than an unsubstantiated rumor. It's also not that relevant to my point, since the Law/Chaos binary is rather different to the Good/Evil one.
Its the 4e version. The 4e unnamed god of humanity was overthrown/murdered by Asmodeus and his fellow angels who in primordial past had been previously in service to that god as warriors against demons. Grazzt was one of them. This caused them all to become devils. Asmodeus as head devil/evil god sent Duke Grazzt into the Abyss to seek an artefact of evil at the bottom of the Abyss where he was further corrupted and switched to being a demon lord (which many view as a ploy for Asmodeus to have an inside man and foothold in the Abyss).

You will note that they are no longer angels. In my view, if a demon became Chaotic Good, it would cease being a demon, and become a Celestial akin to the Eladrins (though not actually of that superspecies, just as an angel who falls doesn't become a Baatezu since those are specific types of devils).
So the 4e Grazzt story.
 

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Bohandas

Adventurer
Torture is less so and is a good indicator of good/evil. Torture can be the easy/expedient route to solve a problem, and a single instance in the heat of the moment may not make a Good character into an Evil one.
Jumping off of this, I'd like to point out that the published materials seem to imply that number of evil acts is more important to alignment than those acts' severity. A lot of very minor evil acts will push you into the evil alignment more quickly than a small number of major evil acts.

This hypothesis is the best explanation I can come up with for how humans can be evenly divided between the alignments, and yet there can be murderous bandits* and even cannibal serial killers** who are merely neutral rather than evil

*In the official Temple of Elemental Evil computer gane
**Book of Lairs page 63
 

Envisioner

Explorer
Depends on the edition story you are talking about. 1e-3e he was always a demon. 4e he was an angel then a devil then a demon lord.
Shades of Samuel Haight! Presumably in 6E they'll make Grazzt one of the Lords of the Fey and he'll be CG for a while, before completing a full circuit of the non-neutral Alignments.

Its the 4e version.
Well, 4E did a lot of things to the canon which I don't approve of; I'll add this to the list.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
Shades of Samuel Haight! Presumably in 6E they'll make Grazzt one of the Lords of the Fey and he'll be CG for a while, before completing a full circuit of the non-neutral Alignments.
I'm not sure what his 5e story is.

And unlike Haight he didn't keep adding things on, he changed. So instead of being an angel/devil/demon lord, he shifted from one to the other to the other and is now fully a demon lord.
 

Robin Hood doesn’t oppose feudalism though, he opposes Prince John. He’s not against “the system,” he’s against the wrong person taking control of the system. With King Richard reinstated, Robin’s vigilantism comes to an end.
The interesting thing is that in the early ballads, he kind of does oppose feudalism. Not in the systematic, ideological way we might expect of, say, a 20th-Century communist revolutionary, to be sure. But the story hadn't yet been fixed in a specific historical context: he isn't opposing Prince John, Prince John and King Richard don't figure in the narrative. Instead he's opposing generic representatives of medieval English wealth and power. In particular -- and this is an aspect that has almost disappeared from the story now -- he robs a lot of churchmen.

Overall, these ballads read like fun, innocuous outlets for common folks' frustration at corruption higher up the social ladder. Although they don't advocate change in any grand way, they are predicated on a shared understanding that super-rich bishops and sheriffs are not respectable authority figures but rather greedy bastards, and wouldn't it be nice if somebody could live free of the laws they lay down and give them their comeuppance. In D&D terms, this is chaotic as all get out.

(I should stress that this isn't all that's going on in there. Again: they're medieval ballads, not post-industrial socialist parables, so we need to be careful about interpreting the social pressures they're expressing through an anachronistic filter. If I had to put a finger on it briefly, I'd say that the conflicts are broadly understood in terms of personal character rather than socioeconomic class: the bad guys are haughty, arrogant, and greedy, and the good guys are humble and kind.)
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
The interesting thing is that in the early ballads, he kind of does oppose feudalism. Not in the systematic, ideological way we might expect of, say, a 20th-Century communist revolutionary, to be sure. But the story hadn't yet been fixed in a specific historical context: he isn't opposing Prince John, Prince John and King Richard don't figure in the narrative. Instead he's opposing generic representatives of medieval English wealth and power. In particular -- and this is an aspect that has almost disappeared from the story now -- he robs a lot of churchmen.

Overall, these ballads read like fun, innocuous outlets for common folks' frustration at corruption higher up the social ladder. Although they don't advocate change in any grand way, they are predicated on a shared understanding that super-rich bishops and sheriffs are not respectable authority figures but rather greedy bastards, and wouldn't it be nice if somebody could live free of the laws they lay down and give them their comeuppance. In D&D terms, this is chaotic as all get out.
Oh, yeah, the Robin Hood of the early ballads is absolutely Chaotic Good. But you’re the first to refine the discussion to the Robin Hood of the early ballads. I (and I assume others) was talking about the Robin Hood most modern folks are familiar with. Focusing just on the original ballads would be like limiting the concurrent argument about the Punisher to just his portrayal in the original run of his comics.
 

While I know people seem to be split on Alignment in D&D, in my games we DO have Alignment involved. Two of my players are playing their Chaotic Neutral characters to a "T" and the CN Wizard leveraged a situation to his advantage to secure a Sending Stone that would call in a Druid Grove strike force when needed because said Grove owes the party BIG TIME.

The Archdruidress DID intentionally neglect to tell him, though, said Stone will shatter once the favor has been called in.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
The fact that Robin Hood in the earliest stories opposed 'Feudalism' shouldn't be a surprise. Some of that material comes from Saxon sources who were pretty sore about their new Norman overlords post 1066. So a system, yes, but not, at the time, his system.
 

Oh, yeah, the Robin Hood of the early ballads is absolutely Chaotic Good. But you’re the first to refine the discussion to the Robin Hood of the early ballads. I (and I assume others) was talking about the Robin Hood most modern folks are familiar with. Focusing just on the original ballads would be like limiting the concurrent argument about the Punisher to just his portrayal in the original run of his comics.
Sure. It goes back to my point that Robin Hood's character and motives are wildly dependent on the adaptation.

The fact that Robin Hood in the earliest stories opposed 'Feudalism' shouldn't be a surprise. Some of that material comes from Saxon sources who were pretty sore about their new Norman overlords post 1066. So a system, yes, but not, at the time, his system.
I'm not aware of Saxon-Norman tensions featuring in the story prior to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. The chronology doesn't really line up -- these are 14th- and 15th-Century ballads, by which time there was no such thing as a "Norman" or "Saxon" in England.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Sure. It goes back to my point that Robin Hood's character and motives are wildly dependent on the adaptation.
Indeed, and on that point I very much agree with you. But, I think the general modern popular concept of Robin Hood, assembled from various film and literature adaptations, is ultimately a lawful figure. His lawbreaking is viewed as justified by the injustice of the laws he is violating, his rebellious acts legitimized by the illegitimacy of the authority he rebels against. He’s seen as righting societal wrongs, rather than acting against social order. That’s lawful in my book.
 

Indeed, and on that point I very much agree with you. But, I think the general modern popular concept of Robin Hood, assembled from various film and literature adaptations, is ultimately a lawful figure. His lawbreaking is viewed as justified by the injustice of the laws he is violating, his rebellious acts legitimized by the illegitimacy of the authority he rebels against. He’s seen as righting societal wrongs, rather than acting against social order. That’s lawful in my book.
Even in modernity there's a split. You're describing the Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe take on the character pretty well. When you get to something like the Errol Flynn or Disney version, though, he may still be loyal to the King and breaking John's laws because they're illegitimate, but he seems to be having a lot of fun doing it. One can only imagine that he'd be an unpredictable rascal even if he were living a respectable life under the benevolent and legitimate rule of Richard. In the climate created by John he has found the perfect role to fit his natural tendencies: he takes to rebellion like a duck to water. The Costner/Crowe Robin, in contrast, is uncomfortable with the outlaw life that has been forced upon him; much more emphasis is placed on his own situation being unjust. That's an excellent portrait of the law-chaos divide, I think.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Even in modernity there's a split. You're describing the Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe take on the character pretty well. When you get to something like the Errol Flynn or Disney version, though, he may still be loyal to the King and breaking John's laws because they're illegitimate, but he seems to be having a lot of fun doing it. One can only imagine that he'd be an unpredictable rascal even if he were living a respectable life under the benevolent and legitimate rule of Richard. In the climate created by John he has found the perfect role to fit his natural tendencies: he takes to rebellion like a duck to water. The Costner/Crowe Robin, in contrast, is uncomfortable with the outlaw life that has been forced upon him; much more emphasis is placed on his own situation being unjust. That's an excellent portrait of the law-chaos divide, I think.
But even the Hoods who flaunt their outlaw status happily bend the knee to Richard when he returns. Regardless of how they feel about it, their actions prove that it is not the establishment itself they oppose but the specific person leading it. Once the legitimate ruler takes back his authority, they marry their respective Marians and live happily (and presumably law-abidingly) ever after. At most, these more roguish Robins are employing Chaotic means towards Lawful ends.

Of course, this means/ends distinction is part of why I prefer to evaluate characters’ ideals and actions separately. Most incarnations of Robin Hood engage in Chaotic behavior quite regularly, but their ideals vary much more from one incarnation to the next. Costner and Crow hold Lawful ideals and the Chaotic actions they must take are a source of inner conflict. But Flynn and the Disney Robin Hood I would say are ideologically Neutral with regards to Law and Chaos. When the king is Evil, they behave Chaotically. When the Good king returns, they are content to behave Lawfully.
 

But even the Hoods who flaunt their outlaw status happily bend the knee to Richard when he returns. Regardless of how they feel about it, their actions prove that it is not the establishment itself they oppose but the specific person leading it. Once the legitimate ruler takes back his authority, they marry their respective Marians and live happily (and presumably law-abidingly) ever after. At most, these more roguish Robins are employing Chaotic means towards Lawful ends.

Of course, this means/ends distinction is part of why I prefer to evaluate characters’ ideals and actions separately. Most incarnations of Robin Hood engage in Chaotic behavior quite regularly, but their ideals vary much more from one incarnation to the next. Costner and Crow hold Lawful ideals and the Chaotic actions they must take are a source of inner conflict. But Flynn and the Disney Robin Hood I would say are ideologically Neutral with regards to Law and Chaos. When the king is Evil, they behave Chaotically. When the Good king returns, they are content to behave Lawfully.
Are characters chaotic only if they oppose the establishment itself? That seems kind of limiting. And it has the odd implication that they cease to be chaotic if they ever actually win. Are chaotic characters obliged to break laws even if the laws are good? That seems pretty limiting too. If lawful good Costner-Robin can break laws he thinks are evil, then surely chaotic good Flynn-Robin can abide by laws he thinks are good. (And probably with far less inner conflict: he's just doing what he feels is best, same as always.)
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I'm not aware of Saxon-Norman tensions featuring in the story prior to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. The chronology doesn't really line up -- these are 14th- and 15th-Century ballads, by which time there was no such thing as a "Norman" or "Saxon" in England.
A proposed basis for aspects of the Robin Hood stories is the more historical figure of Hereward the Wake. He was a Saxon resister to the rule of Wiliam. I'd have to go digging for significant academic support, but the similarities are enough that my memories of grad school still make sense.
 

My personal bugbear with assinging alignment to fictional character is with Darth Vader/ Anakin Skywalker.

There is broad consensus that as a Jedi Anakin was CG (no respect for authority, impulsive and reckless, but with a benevolent moral compass, and genuine altruism).

It's when we get to Vader that people start assigning LE to him, which I wholly disagree with. For mine, Vader is textbook CE.

The only 'Lawful' thing about Vader is he serves the Emperor (and the Empire) and it is well established canonically (and in Legends) that he only does so largely out of fear. And of course, a Chaotic villain can work for an organisation in any event (even a Lawful one). A LE Wizard can have an entire army of CE Orcs working for him, but he will need to use fear and intimation to keep them in line (which is precisely how Vader is largely kept in line).

Vader is reckless, impulsive and unpredictable. He does not keep his word. He actively betrayed or attempted to betray Leia, Lando Calrissian and the Emperor. He literally exists outside the law, and acts however his fear, anger and rage direct him to (subject to the bidding of the Emperor). A meeting with Vader is as likely to result in your death as it will any other outcome, and a perceived failure on your part (or insulting his religion or performance) will also lead to the same outcome. He follows no code other than the Sith code (which itself is a CE code best summarised as 'LEEEEROY JENKINS!').

Vader is in no way 'Lawful'. He has no sense of honour. His word means nothing. He acts according to his baser emotions, subject only to the will of the Emperor, whom he actively attempts to betray in EP V (seeking to convince Luke to join him and destroy the Emperor, as all good Sith do) before finally pegging him down a bottomless shaft in EP VI.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Are characters chaotic only if they oppose the establishment itself? That seems kind of limiting.
I would say yes. Otherwise what’s the distinction between Chaotic and Neutral on the Law/Chaos spectrum?

And it has the odd implication that they cease to be chaotic if they ever actually win.
Not necessarily, Chaotic social structures are theoretically possible.

Are chaotic characters obliged to break laws even if the laws are good? That seems pretty limiting too.
Characters aren’t obliged to do anything on the basis of their alignment, but their actions determine their alignment. A character who believes in Chaotic ideals but never violates or opposes Law is at most Neutral. Just as believing one is committing atrocities in service of a greater Good doesn’t make them any less Evil.

If lawful good Costner-Robin can break laws he thinks are evil, then surely chaotic good Flynn-Robin can abide by laws he thinks are good. (And probably with far less inner conflict: he's just doing what he feels is best, same as always.)
Both Robins can do whatever they like, but their alignments will reflect their actions. Costner-Robin holds Lawful ideals but behaves Chaotically under John’s rule, and behaves Lawfully under Richard’s rule. Flynn-Robin holds what appear to me to be Neutral ideals and behaves Chaotically under John’s rule and Lawfully under Richard’s rule. A Robin with Chaotic ideals would be likely to behave Chaotically under any rule. I’d say we see such a Robin in his more classic incarnations in the ballads.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
Robin Hood is one of those characters who can be reimagined to embody aspects of whatever moral tale the storyteller wishes to impress upon the audience, and there are so many versions of the story that I don’t think it’s terribly productive to try and guess Robin’s motivations.

In the earliest stories, Robin is from the yeomanry (he’s not Earl of Loxley or Huntingdon), and there is no royal connection – his rivalry is with the Sheriff or with Guy of Gisborne. Some of the Merry Men (Much, Tuck, Little John) appear quite early – in the 15th c. Alan-a-Dale is much later.

Anchoring the story during the Third Crusade was a Tudor conceit. This backdrop led to developing the roles of Richard and John, who had no part in the earliest tales. The crusader connection gives a great dramatic backdrop, and ends with Kevin Costner or Russel Crowe as the veteran of a terrible war, striving to achieve social justice – which is where we are at present in the development of this ongoing myth or story.

Marian was originally a Mayday goddess (spirit, protector – whatever terminolgy you prefer); Robin might also have originally been some kind of pagan figure, it’s hard to know, as there’s nothing from before the 15th century written down. There’s a connection between a Robin and a Marian from a 13th century French pastoral, Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion, where Robin is a knight, and it seems as though this Robin and Robin Hood were in some sense conflated, at least as far as Marian is concerned.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
The Empire as a whole is certainly LE, and it's easy to see Vader and Palpatine as synonymous with it, but both are CE or maybe NE.

I would argue strongly that a Chaotic alignment doesn't necessarily mean that you actively oppose social systems such as authority structures; it just means you are willing to do so if the situation comes up. Basically, being Chaotic means thinking that your own choices is more important than the established rules, traditions, and other social structures handed down to you by the world that existed before you and will exist after you. The alignment of Law is ultimately about transcending individuality, out of recognition that people are mortal, and thus it's important for them to contribute to something larger and more lasting than themselves. Individuals who feel strongly the opposite of that attitude, who care more about themself and their immediate loved ones than about leaving a legacy or honoring an ancestor or the like, those individuals can be Chaotic without having to be aggressively opposed to the concept of Law. A "live and let live" attitude is either Neutral or Chaotic, depending mostly on how extreme your reaction is when someone refuses to leave you alone.
 

I would argue strongly that a Chaotic alignment doesn't necessarily mean that you actively oppose social systems such as authority structures; it just means you are willing to do so if the situation comes up. Basically, being Chaotic means thinking that your own choices is more important than the established rules, traditions, and other social structures handed down to you by the world that existed before you and will exist after you.
For sure. Jedi Anakin was Chaotic (Good), and that fits him to a tee.

One caveat though. If those rules, traditions and social structures are themselves Chaotic (such as what one would find in an Orc society, or Drow society) rebelling against them and actively pursuing and choosing a system of order and honor would actually make you Lawful.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
But even the Hoods who flaunt their outlaw status happily bend the knee to Richard when he returns.
Of course they do, they like their heads right where they are! Consider the difference:

Hood: "Hey, Kingy-babes, I was an outlaw under John and I'll stay an outlaw under you!"
Richard: "Off - with his head."

Hood: "Hey, Kingy-babes, I was an outlaw under John but I did it all so you'd have a throne to come back to!"
Richard: "Rise, Sir Robin."
 

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